Back in 2009 my greatest obsession was with the PS2, with my console being located at my grandparents’ house, and me visiting them on a daily basis, it was a solid form of entertainment to keep me occupied while everyone else ate tea and biscuits (Yes, my family are that British stereotype). But I found myself constantly wanting new games, new stories to experience and new ways to pass the time. So I made it a mission that every time I’d go shopping I’d pick up a PS2 game, the PS3 was well into its lifecycle by now and thankfully PS2 games were selling cheaper by the dozen. Throughout this task, I picked up a metric ton of gems ranging from The Simpsons Hit and Run to Jak X Combat Racing and unfortunately games like the Little Britain Game and the entire FIFA PS2 library (2001- 2014). It was a great easily accessible hobby and one that my mum loved to fund because it kept me quiet for a few hours every night. but I’m not just telling you this so to recommend a hobby. I’m telling you this because this hobby introduced me to what is possibly one of my favourite First-person shooters of all time and it only cost me £1.
Area 51, never heard of it? That fine because I’m going to attempt to sell it to you now. Area 51 is a sci-fi first-person shooter, but it intertwines with multiple other genres as well. It seems you play a HAZMAT operative sent into the depths of the infamous Area 51 base to hunt down and exterminate an alien virus. Immediately your thrust into the action. You’re sent into the base straight off the bat with the very little backstory behind you and you begin travelling down the seemingly never-ending depths of the base itself. You’ve got yourself a gun and everyone around you does too, you feel as though your part of a well-trained team about to rain destruction on anything that comes your way. Then you enter hell. The lights begin to dim and you realise that this isn’t just a straight-up shooter, using only your flashlight hordes upon hordes of infected creatures flood the screen. The fear factor intensifies. The game quickly turns into a survival horror, you never know what’s around every corner you turn, creatures are appearing from the depths of corridors you didn’t even know would have room to hold such beasts. I’m not going to lie, back when I first got this, it terrified me. Replaying it now not so much but I can still see exactly what used to get me back in the day. You see the beauty of Area 51 is that it never likes to stick to one particular genre of shooter, one moment you are creeping around with your flashlight on the next your using alien powers to mutate into a super being. The gameplay is so varied that you never get tired of it.
Its level design matched its variation as well, whether it be the dark depths of the labs, the deep underground cave system or one of the many secrets Area 51 has to withhold it’s so very varied. There are so many specific locations in Area 51 that have stuck with me years after playing through it the first time (especially one which is located on the moon). The game really leans into its setting, trying to get the most out of an ambitious idea. Area 51 is such a huge pop culture mystery that the possibilities of what they could have put in this were insane, yet it all feels oddly real. It’s like everything your seeing in the base is actually everything you would find in the real Area 51 and even though the storyline is so extravagant and over the top, it doesn’t ever feel like what your witnessing is all made up. I’d say these are all solid reasons as to why you should get around to playing this, but if you’ve still not been sold on this there’s only the gameplay left for me to turn you around.
Thankfully I only have more praise to share with you. The gunplay in Area 51 is fantastic, whether it be using a long-distance sniper rifle, and Alien super rifle or just a regular pistol everything feels and controls great (There’s even Wolfenstein-esque Dual wielding). The amount of variation in weapons is just as satisfying as the level variation, although I would have liked more alien weapons, and it all leads to really well-paced gameplay. Like I mentioned earlier, later in the game, you can also become a mutant yourself which comes with own foray of powers and abilities, all of which are hilarious to play around with. You become a nearly unstoppable predator, with X-Ray vision, increased health and cool abilities which allow you contaminate other enemies. If you haven’t gathered by now, Area 51 is a cool game. You have cool weapons, cool locations and cool story. But lets just for a second say that’s not enough, you’re still on the fence and just need one little nudge to send you either way. How about the fact that the lead character is voiced by none other than David Duchovny himself. That’s right you’re playing through this game guided by the Mulder from the X-Files, hunting aliens with sniper rifles as Mulder is an experience that I can’t remove from my mind even if I wanted too (Okay you’re not playing as Mulder but its close enough). Not only that Marylin Manson and the man behind Emperor Palpatine also voice pivotal characters in the game
I’ve run out of cards to play now, its review scores are pretty commendable and it sold about half a million copies worldwide. In my opinion, its one of the most refined well-told stories in FPS history and is on par with the likes of Half-Life 2 and System Shock (for me anyway) but upon replaying it I started to question why it never actually did anything. Why do I love this game so much and no one else does, as far as I was aware this didn’t have some cult following and its never been spoken about since its initial release? So, I decided to do a little digging and it turns out that Area 51 managed to garner itself a sequel.
Now before I delve into that I also found that the original game was actually based on a 1995 light gun arcade game of the same name, in which your fighting an infected horde who have taken over the Area 51 base. Instead of being a HAZMAT operative you’re a STAAR operative, with it being a light gun game there’s little to no story and the number of guns and gameplay variation is nothing when compared to the 2005 game (but that’s to be expected). There’s also a sequel to that called Area 51: Site 4 which honestly, I can find very little information on. It looks to be very similar to the first only with more enemy variation so I can only assume that it just wasn’t anything spectacular. From looking at the reception the original arcade game got it doesn’t really surprise me that it received a complete reboot. It sold over 20,000 units to various arcades and upon home release sold above what the average light gun game sold. It also got favourable reviews which can only have helped its cause, the concept of the game itself was clearly ripe with opportunity and that’s most likely why it was decided to be given a second chance.
The sequel, however, is a different kettle of fish, while the first was innovative the second is monotonous. It lacks the variation the first prized itself on, the cool story, locations and David Duchovny were all absent from Blacksite – Area 51. Instead, the game tried to push a social/political agenda on the player, only it did a very poor job of it. That was at the heart of the criticism for the game as well, people praised the graphics and competent controls but its story was responsible for much of the scrutiny. One thing people did like though was the addition of a squad tactics system, this meant that you could order around your team, send them to attack enemies and just generally cover your back. It also came hand in hand with a moral system which rewarded the player for looking after the A.I and made them more powerful because of that. But this wasn’t enough to save Area 51 from disappearing, you’re probably assuming that it was just because of low sales figures or lack of interest. Well, they were both definitely contributing factors but it was actually one larger mistake which I believe truly K.O’d the franchise.
Right in the middle of the scrutiny, the sequel was getting the lead designer of the games shot back at critics, it seemed as though the development team were aware of the mistakes they made, the game’s designer came out and made a point of how ruined the games development cycle was. He claimed that low reviews were due to not being able to test the game properly, this did not go down well with the publishers and so the lead designer of the project was subsequently fired. Now I think that’s a pretty concrete reason for the series to never make a return, without a lead designer the games had no future (the average reviews and lack of interest probably didn’t help that either but they were not as big contributors). I’m confident this franchise is dead now, there were plans for a film but that was promptly scrapped and since Blacksite there’s not been another word about the franchise. This doesn’t surprise me though, to me Area 51 might have been a fantastically well made FPS but it didn’t do anything to drastically change the market forever so its never going to go down in history as anything more than an average FPS. Id love to see more Area 51 games truly leaning into the setting and scope the franchise had the potential for but I’m sure that will never happen.
Did you play any of the Area 51 games? Would you like to see them make a grand return? Let us know in the comments below!